Congress Crams Grab Bag of Policies Into Spending Bills as Impeachment Vote Looms

December 18, 2019, 1:12 PM UTC

As the House of Representatives is poised to impeach the American president for only the third time in U.S. history Wednesday, Congress is simultaneously moving a $1.4 trillion spending package before the end of the year, cramming a series of consequential and unrelated policies into the must-pass bills.

The two bills, totaling 2,313 pages, were unveiled—after printer problems— late Monday afternoon and passed by the House of Representatives Tuesday, giving members virtually no time to read them or the public to learn about them.

The spending package funds the government through September 2020. The bills will avert another shutdown should the Senate pass them, as the chamber is expected to on Thursday, and President Donald Trump sign them by Friday, as White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway has said he will.

Yet, the bills are much more than merely a means of continuing to fund the government. 

The funding bills dismantle three controversial Affordable Care Act taxes, raise the age of tobacco purchases from 18 to 21, secure coal miner pensions, and extend the Export-Import Bank of the United States for seven years.

While the bill repeals suspended funding mechanisms for the Affordable Care Act that the health insurance industry has railed against, it leaves out a popular proposal to curtail so-called surprise medical bills. The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget estimated that the bills could add $500 billion to the federal debt over a decade.

Most controversial among Democrats is maintaining funding for Trump’s border wall at $1.375 billion, and allowing the president to use other funds from military construction projects toward the wall.

The frenzied end-of-year lawmaking revealed an unseemly part of governing in Washington. Just as the public was looking to the House of Representatives on the impeachment vote, Congress was cramming to pass a grab bag of policies into an essential bill in a span of a few days.

Yet, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) defended the funding process when asked about it by Fortune, pointing out that the health care tax repeals had already been debated and passed the House separately but had not become law. 

“I don’t think there’s any lack of debate on that either in committee or on the floor,” he said at a briefing for reporters. “Nor should it be surprising to anybody who’s served either in the Congress or covered the Congress, when you get down to the end, there’s a lot of to and fro, and when you get to an agreement, you move it. I don’t think that’s an unusual process when you ask me how do I defend it.”

“Doesn’t make much sense. But, the time is the time,” Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) told Fortune of the abbreviated appropriations vote. He defended the inclusion of the health care tax repeals in the bill, but said they should be undone later. “They should be in there. We should try to undo them, but we’re not going to get their support. We have a majority in one body, we need a majority in the other body,” he added.

The spending package was made up of two bills, one on defense measures, and a second on funding for domestic agencies. The defense measure passed the House by a vote of 280-138, with 75 Democrats voting no, along with 62 Republicans, and 130 Republicans joining 150 Democrats in voting yes. The domestic measure passed 297-120, with 218 Democrats and 79 Republicans voting yes, and seven Democrats and 112 Republicans voting no.

Trump said in 2018 that he would not vote on one “omnibus” bill again, referring to a bill that funds the government through several appropriations bills that could be voted on in one bill. Instead, lawmakers split the “omnibus” into two separate “minibus” bills, suiting both Trump and House Democrats. Democrats could vote for domestic provisions while voting against wall funding in the defense bill. The House Progressive Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus opposed the bill funding Trump’s border measures and the Defense Department.

“You have to make a final decision on each of the two bills, knowing that you’re going to find out some stuff later that’s probably awful,” Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told Fortune. “I’d rather have a different policy at the border, but this is a priority for the Republicans so I’ll vote against that one,” adding that he was voting for the domestic bill.

With all of the spending in the bill, both parties could point to wins.

Democrats added increased election security funding and the Census, and new research funding for gun violence. Republicans got an additional $22 billion in Pentagon funding, and Trump could divert funding for military construction projects to the border wall. Democrats did not overturn Republican priorities on restricting federal funds for health clinics that perform or refer patients to abortion clinics.

There was a sense of relief that lawmakers had agreed to fund the government for nine months, appearing to avoid, at least for now, the prospect of a government shutdown or a continuing resolution (CR), the legislative mechanism that Congress uses to fund the government temporarily.

“We shouldn’t be in the last hour here,” Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) told Fortune. “If we pass this, and it’s not a CR, and we don’t shut down the government, in today’s world, we have to declare some sort of victory.”

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